The group of young IT engineers smirked as a workshop leader began listing what constitutes sexual harassment under India’s ambitious new law — unwelcome words, gestures or acts of a sexual nature.
Then the questions gushed forth.
“Can we not even compliment or flatter a woman now? What about flirting?” asked one of the men in the seminar room of Nacre Software Services, in the southern city of Hyderabad. Another asked: “If women dress seductively, it will naturally disturb the men in the office. Shouldn’t the law say something about women’s dress code at work?”
At this, their female colleagues shouted, “No!”
“I know you do all this outside, but now you can’t do this in the office,” said the workshop facilitator, Suman Sayani, as the men tried to hide their laughter.
Such workshops are a sign of India’s increasing attempts to tackle pervasive sexual harassment. The effort reflects an unprecedented national conversation about the abuse of women set off by the horrific gang-rape of a young student in December.
The debate is occurring as a growing number of women are entering urban service jobs in information technology, banking, retail and health care — transforming what were once predominantly male occupations. The number of female office workers increased threefold in the past decade in Hyderabad, according to the census.
“The new law was really prompted by the huge anger unleashed by the Delhi gang-rape victim, and the government needed to show action,” said Lira Goswami, senior partner with the New Delhi-based law firm Associated Law Advisers, who instruct companies on the law. “But the biggest challenge for the Indian woman is cultural.”
When a woman is harassed, she added, “her family tells her to hush it, ignore it. Others say it will blemish her reputation. Our society is always telling women to cover up the abuse, even though it is rampant.”
Awareness about workplace sexual harassment is relatively new in India, where men in powerful positions routinely make passes at their female subordinates, grope them and crack off-color jokes.
“Despite this new law, companies are still very squeamish to talk about this,” Sayani said. “They say that their male employees feel targeted, that the topic is too sensitive and may spread unnecessary negativity in the office. Many companies request me to counsel the women, instead, to take better care and somehow avoid such propositions.”
But many hope that the IT industry in business-friendly, globally connected cities such as Hyderabad and Bangalore can show the way for the rest of India.
“The culture of IT companies here is different, and they can be early adopters,” said Rajwant Motikar, chief executive of AdminCorp, a business management consultancy that has begun formulating sexual harassment policies for small IT companies in Hyderabad.
India’s Supreme Court had first directed companies to have sexual-harassment guidelines in 1997, but implementation has been poor. Blue-chip Indian companies and international firms followed some of the guidelines, but in the overwhelming majority of Indian workplaces, they had little or no effect.
The new law makes compliance mandatory and covers not only women in offices but also those who work in people’s homes and on farms.
Already there are signs of a backlash.
“There is a pro-women atmosphere sweeping India right now after the December gang rape, but the laws are now completely tilted in favor of women,” said Rajiv Chawla, an automobile component manufacturer in Faridabad, a suburb of New Delhi. “If you bring in such draconian laws, businesses would protect themselves by not hiring women. Under this law, a man’s entire reputation and career is gone because of a mere allegation.”
But the new attention to sexual abuse has spurred some women to act. Aruna Kumar, 36, a secretary at a New Delhi college, filed a complaint with police against her boss for sexual harassment in April, after she struggled to get justice within the university system for two years, she said.
“Something changed after the gang rape. I was confident that I would be now be heard, if I go to the police, they would take me seriously,” Kumar said.
Kumar said her boss used to constantly make comments about her looks, put his hands on her shoulder or place his hand over hers when she used a computer mouse. He would call her to his office and make her sit there for hours without any work, she said.
When Kumar complained two years ago, she said, she was transferred to another department but given no work.
Her boss, Sandeep Kumar Sharma, who is the acting college principal, denied the charges and said he has “faith in the university, police and judiciary” to bring out the truth.
This month, Kumar joined a protest march by dozens of people after another woman, a laboratory assistant, immolated herself in public because she was sacked from her job when she complained about sexual harassment by her boss.
Analysts say that women who complain about harassment often wind up leaving their jobs.
“In our culture, women who raise their voice are treated as troublemakers or pitiable victims,” said Shruti Konda, who looks after patient relations at a private hospital in Hyderabad. “Either way, you become the subject of juicy office gossip and jokes.”
In Konda’s previous job at another hospital, the owner continually tried to hold her hand and commented on her bangles and shoes. He even asked her to replace her usual long tunic with a midriff-revealing sari during work hours.
“He was the owner. Who would I complain to?” Konda recalled. “I could not even tell my husband, because he would have asked me to stay at home instead. So I quietly found another job and moved on.”
But Konda has now employed a secret weapon to strike back.
On the annual Hindu festival celebrating siblings, many women tie threads around their brothers’ wrists, symbolizing the men’s commitment to protect their sisters. On that day, Konda goes around tying threads on the wrists of all her male colleagues and bosses. She encourages her female subordinates and interns to do the same.
“I tell the men, ‘You are my brother, it is now your duty to protect me,’ ” Konda said, laughing. “You should see their faces. They try to avoid me on that day.”